By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club
"Our ground is unique down here at the end of the road," Jody Smith-Williams, Green Living Energy Education Community Gardens officer, told the Key West Garden Club members. "It is nutrition-poor and highly alkaline."
Coral rock and oolite limestone form the core of the island chain. Key West is the only Zone 11b in the continental United States and it receives less rain than any other county in Florida. So the first problem gardeners face is location.
The planting site should get six to eight hours of sun. The gardener needs to check the site at different hours of the day for shadows. Secondly, the air the plant breathes should not be too salty. The ground should be free of nearby tree roots. If there is too much sun a shade screen can be hung to cover the seedlings. Finally, privacy is important. Not for the possibly prissy plant, but to keep passing strangers from clipping off tomatoes.
"In the Keys, a raised bed is an obvious answer," Williams continued. "That way the gardener can control the soil quality, drainage, moisture retention and weeds."
Four-foot wide gardens will allow tillage from either side without stepping on the soil. The box can be any length. Untreated wood is good, but cement blocks work better. They have the added advantage of holes that, filled with dirt, can grow more plants. They can be stacked to any height creating deeper soil spaces for growing root vegetables.
If the garden is laid over existing weeds or grass, line the bottom with cardboard or a thick layer of black and white newspaper. The weeds will decompose beneath the layers.
"I am a soil fanatic," Williams emphasized. "You don't feed your plants, your soil feeds your plants. There are over a billion micro-organisms in one teaspoon of soil."
You need six to eight inches of soil, more if you grow root vegetables. One way to begin the garden is to choose the lasagna style. When the Key West Garden Club began to make soil at West Martello in 1952, they put down 18 inches of washed seaweed as their first layer. It is full of nutrients. Add a layer of twigs and small branches. Then layer in topsoil, compost, cow or horse manure (soon to be available at the horse barns) and sand. Mix well. Fertilizer, fishmeal, Epsom salts, seaweed extract or worm castings add nutrient interest.
When the soil is prepared the gardener gets to decide what to plant. Williams suggested that "you plant what you like to eat." Start with organic seeds. The seeds are only as good as the ground they were grown in. The May Sands gardens had difficulty with diseases brought in with seedlings from the large stores and now does not allow those seedlings in the garden.
When the seedlings begin to grow, water the soil not the plant to avoid fungus growth on the leaves. As the plant gets older, water less frequently but deeper.
Diseases and insect damage occurs. We are blessed with aphids, white fly, thrips, cabbageworms, nematodes, snails, slugs and hornworms. But we also have ladybugs, lacewings, beneficial wasps and even beneficial nematodes.
What grows well? Williams' Top Ten growers in the GLEE Garden include:
1. Greens, chard, kale, tatsoi, mizuna, lettuce, collards and mustard greens
2. Beans - they put nitrogen in the soil
3. Broccoli and cauliflower --they take up a lot of space for the amount of vegetable grown
4. All herbs
5. Radishes and carrots --carrots take a long time to mature.
6. Onions and leeks
7. Hot peppers
8. Eggplant -- will produce for up to five years.
9. Peas -- peas fix nitrogen
10. Mulberry tree.
Tomatoes are a toss-up. Cherry tomatoes seem to do better while edible flowers such as nasturtiums, marigolds and wild arugula also do well, so make your garden beautiful and edible.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award-Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com